Interview w/ Steve Pikelny:
The Dutch Auction for Dopamine Machines will begin on artblock.io, 6/21/2023 @ 1:00PM EDT
Steve Pikelny is an internationally famous artist, entrepreneur, engineer, and thought leader. Often referred to as a 'generational voice and talent', Pikelny’s work has captured the hearts and minds of art critics and crypto degens alike, and has been lauded as highly influential across the entire sphere of digital art. Today, we speak to him about his highly-anticipated curated Art Blocks project: Dopamine Machines
CryptoGateway: Thanks for joining us once again, Steve!
Steve Pikelny: Always a pleasure!
CG: First off, I just want to say that Dopamine Machines looks incredible. I don't think I've been this excited for a project to be released in a really long time.
SP: Thank you so much! I'm also very excited! It's been in the making for a very long time.
CG: How long is "a very long time" for you? You're quite prolific, so I'm curious how this stacks up against your other projects.
SP: It's funny that people always tell me I'm prolific because I feel like 90% of my work comes in short, intense bursts, and I end up wasting a huge chunk of my time passively scrolling around the internet or aimlessly walking around my neighborhood. If I'm lucky, then maybe I'll spend a month slogging through an art theory book. So it very much feels like I spend most of my time doing nothing in particular, and that I'm not some hyperproductive artist. But I think a lot of conceptual work happens in the background while my brain is in this borderline catatonic state, and I constantly find myself daydreaming about ideas I'd like to explore in my art. So it's difficult to say how much time I actually spend on anything. But I think I started kicking around the vague idea for Dopamine Machines in maybe late 2021 or early 2022. And then I prototyped a couple very rough drafts over the spring and summer of 2022. My git commit history goes back to 6/2/22, and I remember doing an installation at Token Art NYC that year with an early draft and a few pieces from what ended up becoming Terminally Online. But then I kind of hit a wall and got distracted with other projects, so I put it on ice for a few months. Then earlier this year I fell into a bit of a funk where I was literally doing nothing for weeks on end, and I needed to start working on something to pull me out.
CG: Sounds like you needed some dopamine!
SP: Exactly! I think that's one of the reasons that this project appealed to me. I needed something exciting to spice things up. So I really started working on it in earnest in early February, and spent maybe six weeks cranking away at it. Then I ran into a lot of technical issues with Art Blocks, which I won't really get into, but the fact that this was their first project with emojis and CSS animations led to some rendering issues that we needed to sort out. So that took a couple weeks. Then they reviewed it for a couple weeks, and then it took a couple months to get a slot on their calendar. But even though I "finished" it in maybe mid-March, I was constantly polishing things up and adding stupid little features right up until a week ago. In fact, I think I decided to add a feature 20 minutes before I published the code.
CG: Wow, that's quite the process! What was it like to live in the Dopamine Machine world for that long?
SP: I've gone through a lot of emotional cycles with this project. As you could imagine, working on the sound design got incredibly annoying after a while. I'm not really a musician, and this project sort of pushes the limits of my knowledge of music theory, so I wasn't exactly nailing everything on the first go. So there were plenty of points where I was listening to the same annoying shit over and over and over again for hours, which made me want to throw my computer out of the goddamn window. My roommate is an absolute champ for putting up with this.
CG: I'm glad that you spent the time to fine tune the sound design though, because that's one of my favorite parts of the project.
SP: Yeah, I think it came out pretty well. The outputs with a lot of animating sections are particularly fun because it gives you a pretty diverse soundboard to play with. And even though most of them end up being fairly dissonant, a lot of them can be quite pleasant and engaging (if not overwhelming and slightly annoying).
I've gone through a lot of emotional cycles with this project.
CG: I really like how much freedom the user has here. Between the sounds, the text-to-voice, and all the keyboard controls, they really have the ability to shape their own experience. How do you think people will take advantage of this?
SP: I actually conducted a fair amount of user testing while developing it, so I've actually already seen a pretty wide variety of reactions. I showed it to a handful of friends and got pretty regular feedback from the Business Associates in my discord server. Some people immediately perk up and get genuinely engaged with what's on the screen. That's really funny to me because there's this clear element of satire where your web browser is shamelessly trying to manipulate you into experiencing this dopamine rush. And even though it doesn't try to hide these manipulative intentions from you, you still "fall for it". So, even people who are "in on the joke" end up having a genuine dopamine rush. But then at the opposite end of the spectrum, some people really fucking hate it. They'll be polite about it, but it's pretty clear that they have this sort of visceral discomfort with it. And ironically, I've found that the most common reaction to this discomfort is to click on more things, which makes it even more overwhelming. But those were helpful to watch because they uncovered some UX issues.
CG: Was that disheartening to see?
SP: Not at all. I think that being overwhelmed and uncomfortable is a completely valid reaction. What would worry me is if people were bored by it, or had no meaningful reaction at all.
CG: Do you prefer one over the other?
SP: Yeah, I think all else being equal I'd prefer people to have a positive experience. But in general I'm learning that I'm not a huge fan of creating art that dictates to the viewer how they should feel, or what to think. That's up to them. I'd much rather create interesting blanks for them to fill in themselves.
CG: So how do you personally fill in those blanks? How does viewing Dopamine Machines make you feel? Where does your mind go?
SP: It's hard for me to boil it down to a single feeling. Some days I fire up the Dopamine Machine algorithm, find a fun output, play with it for a half hour, and walk away with a solid dopamine boost. Other days even the thought of looking at it makes me feel nauseous. But after living in close proximity to it for so long, I've largely become habituated to simply loading it up on my screen and clicking on it. I don't quite get the same rush I used to. So after the project drops I think it will be really interesting to see how people's relationships with their own Dopamine Machines develop.
CG: The way you're describing it almost makes it seem like it's some sort of dystopian, cyberpunk product that people can buy to get a quick fix of dopamine.
SP: I mean, we're already sort of living in that world. Meme stocks, crypto degeneracy, and sports gambling have become commonplace over the last few years. Opiate and porn use is at an all time high in the US. Social media apps are designed like slot machines. What else is there to sell people aside from a Dopamine Machine? It really feels like that's the logical conclusion to all of this. Let's just cut to the chase.
CG: So what kinds of (non-title cased) dopamine machines do you use in your everyday life?
SP: I think social media and the blockchain are the two big ones for me. And at the moment, I'm ironically (or maybe not so ironically) getting a pretty big dopamine payoff by interoping the two with Dopamine Machines. I earn a living mainly from selling NFTs, after all, so I tell myself that chasing social media engagement is all part of the job. But at the same time, having gone through a few Art Blocks drops, I know that I'm kind of setting myself up for a pretty strong dopamine deficit in about a week when everyone has moved on to another shiny new NFT.
What else is there to sell people aside from a Dopamine Machine? It really feels like that's the logical conclusion to all of this. Let's just cut to the chase.
CG: It's interesting to think about Dopamine Machines as this digital object that can interop with other systems. Even though some of your prior work is a bit more blockchain-aware, it feels like the digital objectness of this project adds a subtle flavor that I don't think I picked up on initially.
SP: Yeah, I think that on one hand this is the type of algorithm that one could sit around with and endlessly explore. But on the other hand, there's something cool about having a definitive 777 floating around out there. That's the product line.
CG: In general, I think this project does a great job of being medium-aware. Even more so than being an NFT, it's very self-consciously a website. I still can't get over the fact that you were able to achieve this entirely with HTML and CSS. It's all very smooth and responsive, and the points of interactivity have that intangible website feel. But at the same time, I've never quite seen a website like this before. For that matter, I'm not quite sure I've seen a generative art project like this before.
SP: That was definitely a goal of mine!
CG: I feel that this project is really innovative on at least two counts. First, as I've just touched on, the techniques that you're using here are pretty novel in both the generative art world and the web development world. Frankly, I didn't realize that most of what you're doing here was even possible. Nor would it have even occurred to me to attempt it! But second, this is conceptually very different from anything out there. I hope you don't mind me saying that this would look very out of place on something like the generative art subreddit. But after playing with the algorithm and looking at multiple outputs side by side, there's no mistaking the fact that this is generative art. Where do you think this all fits within the larger generative art cannon?
SP: That's a good question, and I'm not really sure I have a good answer. "Generative Art" is a broad category, and no one can agree on its boundaries. But I feel like a lot of generative art today is about rendering a static image that falls into a certain aesthetic pattern. And to be clear, there's nothing wrong with that. There's some incredible art being made as static images in well-explored generative styles. And there are plenty of artists doing that better than I could ever do it. But also, it seems like a lot of people forget that the current movement of web3-enabled generative art is largely based around the web browser, and that web browsers are really powerful. So I really had a desire to build something that was highly interactive and true to the medium, and the themes of this project line up with that.
CG: In many ways it feels very familiar to some of your earlier work, but much more polished and mature.
CG: I feel like there's so much more we could talk about, but feel like this is a good stopping point. Steve, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes out of the minter.
SP: Of course! Thanks for having me!